clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Remembering the Yankees’ shortstop carousel before Derek Jeter

Prior to the Hall of Famer’s debut, the Yankees just couldn’t seem to lock down anyone at the six.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
Wayne Tolleson
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When one thinks of the Yankees and the shortstop position, the name that comes to mind is pretty clear (with all due respect to Phil Rizzuto). Hall of Fame icon Derek Jeter made history in pinstripes with too many accolades to mention, playing a pivotal role for five different championship teams, including the 1998-2000 threepeat dynasty.

Jeter first wore this uniform in the 1995 season, going back nearly 30years ago. It’s been a while, so we’ll forgive you if the memory isn’t quite so fresh, but Jeter came aboard to fix what had been a longstanding issue of Yankee teams in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

For roughly a decade, the Yankees’ shortstop position was one of the bigger issues for a team that experienced a long postseason drought. The Yankees lost the 1981 World Series Dodgers and failed to make it back to the playoffs until the Wild Card-winning club that Jeter cameoed on in ‘95. From 1982-95, New York shortstops combined to hit a dismal .247/.308/.337 with a wRC+ of 80 — well behind noted AL East competitors of the era, like Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Boston.

Let’s look back at a particular season in 1985 for just one example. Despite winning 97 games, the Yankees, led by Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson, ultimately missed the postseason, finishing just two back of the Blue Jays. Excluding the catcher position, the only regular in the Yankees lineup with an OPS+ below league average was the team’s shortstop, Bob Meacham.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
Bob Meacham
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Meacham wrapped up that season with a .218/.302/.266 slash line, playing in 156 games, hitting a single homer, and stealing 25 bags. (To say something nice about him, he led the league in sacrifice hits with 23.)

It was the only season with an everyday role for Meacham, who transitioned into a middle infielder bench piece in the following campaigns. Meacham has an interesting story arc with the Yankees, particularly because Stan Javier — the other player who came with him to the Bronx via trade — was later used in the package to acquire Henderson from the A’s.

With a lack of options, and his ability to do what was asked out of him (leading the league twice in sacrifice hits), Meacham became the primary option, if for nothing else by default — never a promising proposition.

Wayne Tolleson emerged as a spelling option the following year, with he and Meacham rotating at the position, neither with much success. The result was a .230/.295/.290 triple slash from shortstop in ‘86 as the Red Sox won the division and eventually, the pennant.

In 1988, Rafael Santana became the No. 1 option; in ‘89, it was Alvaro Espinosa (who actually started for a few years with only his defense saving his job). Together, the trio of Tolleson, Santana, and Espinoza combined to hit five homers between 1986-89. Now one can argue that power was never a real factor in their games, but the best partial campaign at the plate came from Tolleson in ‘86, with a .332 OBP and .334 slugging percentage. The only solace was Meacham actually putting together a modest ‘87, albeit in only 232 PA.

As the Yankees dipped into irrelevance in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was no great surprise to see the random, underwhelming names continue to trot out to shortstop. The full table of Opening Day shortstops from 1982-95 speaks volumes about the terrible production.

Yankees shortstops 1982-95

NYY Season Opening Day SS Games OPS+
NYY Season Opening Day SS Games OPS+
1982 Bucky Dent 59 11
1983 Roy Smalley 130 126
1984 Tim Foli 61 64
1985 Bob Meacham 156 59
1986 Bob Meacham 56 63
1987 Wayne Tolleson 121 49
1988 Rafael Santana 148 65
1989 Alvaro Espinoza 146 80
1990 Alvaro Espinoza 150 50
1991 Alvaro Espinoza 148 73
1992 Randy Velarde 121 102
1993 Spike Owen 103 66
1994 Mike Gallego 89 81
1995 Tony Fernández 108 75

Erstwhile playoff hero Bucky Dent’s rapid decline precipitated a series of disastrous campaigns at the six. Roy Smalley at least put in a very nice year in 1983 (as did super-sub Randy Velarde in ‘92), but after underwhelming early at third in ‘84, he was dealt that July.

Let’s fast-forward a few seasons to the 1994 squad. They remain perhaps the most beloved squads in Yankees history to never win it all, primarily because the strike and Bud Selig’s World Series cancellation ensured that no one would go home happy that year. At the time the season fell apart, New York led the American League with a 70-42 record, but even then, they had a flaw at shortstop. Mike Gallego had a very solid season (112 OPS+) as a utility man in 1993 and really took a step back in 1994, with a .686 mark.

This is not a personal knock on any of these players. Most of them were rushed into a role they never really fulfilled because the organization struggled for years to find a reliable starter at the position. And even the short-term veteran solutions who were supposed to step in and provide some measure of stability — the likes of Spike Owen and Tony Fernández — fell flat.

The memory of this annual frustration may not quite linger as much after all, the Yankees only truly contended in a few of the Don Mattingly-led seasons. But if they had someone with talents even remotely approaching Derek Jeter’s level, it might have been enough to push them over the edge in a year or two.

In the post-Jeter era, we’ve seen it all, from the breakout work of Didi Gregorius to the concept of Gleyber Torres, who ultimately (thankfully) switched positions and yielded to Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Now the position is Anthony Volpe’s to lose, long-term. The rookie year left plenty to be desired, but the potential is clearly there. And with all the holes this team needs to fill, he’ll get every opportunity to realize that potential that made us all so excited to see him as this team’s shortstop for the next decade.